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Grass-Roots Hispanic Effort Just May Work

by Myriam Marquez

November 26, 2003
Copyright ©2003 THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved.

Gustavo Galvez and his wife, Yolanda Molina, have been in Orlando only six months, but the Colombian couple figured out what many "old-timers" painfully know: Lots of Hispanic\ civic groups, too few people willing to make things happen.

"When you ask people if they know these organizations are around, you find that few people know about them," Galvez says. "It seems to me these groups didn't spring up from the community. They started top down."

So there they were Monday night at the Engelwood Center -- a dozen folks from Central Florida's fast-growing Hispanic community trying to make things happen from the bottom up. Maybe this time it'll click.

In the 16-plus years I've lived here, I've yet to see it. Only Hispanic business groups seem to capture elected officials' attention -- for good reason. Many of their members grease politicians' campaigns.

Most Hispanics, though, aren't among the corporate elite. They're working stiffs with little clout in our low-wage tourism economy. Plus, ethnic tensions among Hispanic groups divide what should be a community united for equal treatment under the law for jobs, housing, schools and political empowerment.

There's a vacuum in political leadership. Central Florida has only freshman Republican state Rep. John Quiñones, a Puerto Rican, to aggressively pursue issues important to Hispanics. Other elected officials at the city, county and school-board levels do little more than send congratulatory blah, blah, blah proclamations to Hispanic groups on festival days.

Marytza Sanz, who heads Latino Leadership, figures when Hispanics get involved and speak with one voice, politicians in both major parties will take notice and start delivering. The nonprofit organization, which includes Democrats and Republicans on its board, manages to do lots of grass-roots work on a shoestring budget. It's helping more than 500 low-income working families qualify to buy a home -- part of a Housing and Urban Development grant that Latino Leadership received from the National Council of La Raza. The group also registers voters, helps Hispanic students get tutoring and offers workshops to help people manage their money and avoid predatory lenders.

Now, Latino Leadership is reaching out to leaders of two dozen Hispanic groups to hammer out an agenda on community needs.

Charo Hernández notes that many groups, such as the Dominican organization to which she belongs, formed out of "nostalgia" but now need to focus on the here and now. Hernández, Carlos Nájera, a Kissimmee resident from Guatemala, and Christina Bozak, who came from Bolivia to Orlando two decades ago, are counting on Latino Leadership to be the catalyst.

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer tapped Latino Leadership to help the city's Hispanic outreach efforts. He offered the group office space. Spiffy, but what taxpaying Hispanic residents really need is an economic engine that will create better jobs in east Orlando. Same goes for Orange County, particularly for neglected and largely Hispanic neighborhoods to the east and near Apopka to the west. Are you listening, Chairman Rich Crotty?

Hispanics and the groups that claim to lead them need to seize the moment and extract more than empty rhetoric from politicians. Enough blah, blah, blah.

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